I loved spending time in Chiang Mai. I even went back and spent two more nights there after living in Pai for a week. Available all over the city are opportunities to go on jungle treks and hill-tribe tours in the surrounding Northern mountains. But I did not need to do any of these to fill my time. I had already spent over a week in Chiang Mai, during which time I met a monk at Wat Chedi Luang, drove a motorbike up Doi Suthep, released a lantern into the sky at the Yi Peng festival, and celebrated Halloween as a Walking Dead zombie. If these activities weren’t already enough, here are three more experiences in Chiang Mai I enjoyed.
Chiang Mai has multiple excellent street markets to browse. The city is famous for its Night Bazaar, but I’ve never been one for fake designer clothes and watches. I visited the two weekend markets instead: The Saturday Night Market and the Sunday Market.
Haggling at the markets and street vendors around Thailand is common practice. Prices are already laughably inexpensive all around the country and I found them to be are even lower in Chiang Mai than other places I had visited. Regardless, sellers expect you to ask for a further discount. Thankfully, the friends I made in Pai had graciously taught me key Thai phrases to use when shopping like, “How much?” “Can you reduce the price?” and “’I’m too drunk.” Well, maybe that last one wasn’t too useful in this case—but it’s a good one to know anyway!
If you are familiar with proper phonetic spellings and tonality of the Thai language, many of the phrases I learned (and more) are written in a helpful blog post found here.
Upon my return to Chiang Mai, I had a mission: I needed to get people back home some gifts. I had a friend’s birthday around the corner and the holidays were coming up. Maybe I’d even get a trinket or two for myself! Armed with some of the haggling phrases I had learned, I started to shop.
The first thing I noticed about the Saturday market was the diversity of items available. That is, once you get past all the elephant harem pants.
Since it was around the time of the lantern festival, I found lots of lights and lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and colors for sale.
Nearly everything was hand-stitched, hand-carved, hand-crafted, hand-painted—and bursting with color!
Once I got talking to the sellers, I learned many of the items are made by the hill tribe people—especially the Hmong. The Hmong dominate the markets with their beautiful crafts. Usually the seller I was talking to was the artist behind the items. This made haggling with them a unique experience because I had to look them in the eye as I determined the value of their own work.
“Hand made. Take 3 month make,” a Hmong woman said, clutching the gorgeous bed cover I had picked out for my parents back home. This was at the Sunday Market. At the Saturday Night market bed covers had gone for around 1400B, but most were stitched with wild colors and patterns. This one was unique—a soft palette with clean lines. My Thai phrases got the conversation started, but she eventually called over a friend of hers in the stall nearby to help with her English. Her price was set at over 2000B. We settled at 1800B.
It’s easy to get carried away with the haggling. At times, I would realize I was down to haggling the equivalent of $0.30 off on an item I would pay double the price for back home. There comes a point when I had to ask myself, “Who needs this money more?” That’s when I would settle on a price. The woman who sold me the bed cover shook her friends hand as I walked away. Apparently she had made a good sale. I was happy and she was happy—that’s what mattered.
If you’re curious how I mailed everything back to the USA—it was simple! For a fee (inevitably totaling more than I spent on all the gifts combined), I was able to send packages home from a local post office near Thapae Gate. A really sweet woman there helped me box the packages securely and send them off!
Quirky Nightlife fun
Chiang Mai is a beautiful city to walk around at any time of day—but I especially loved it at night. All sorts of surprises pop up and unusual drinking establishments come alive.
For example, I came across these parrots happily perched near the southeast side of the old city. They are owned by a Thai man who could be seen riding with them on his motorbike during the daytime. I was lucky enough to get to pet them for a while before they all went to bed.
My host, Samart, took his friends, volunteers, and I out to the Cocktail Car Bar one night. This is a bar literally parked on the side of Ratchapakhinai Road. It was definitely a unique experience sitting in the street, drinking a mojito.
There are many rooftop bars around Chiang Mai. I visited a couple of them, but I found THC bar to be the most unique. The name definitely reflects the feeling of this place. To reach the roof, you have to climb a series of twisting stairs and ladders surrounded by walls with glowing graffiti.
At the top, there’s a small bar in a room with a low ceiling and a raised floor made of bamboo slats. Half the ceiling opens up so you can sit facing the psychedelic lighting of the bar and gaze up at the night sky above it.
When I was there, an awesome Rasta Thai woman was spinning some great electronic dance music. Definitely a great spot to chill with friends and groove in your seat.
Royal Park Rajapruek
Samart took me and his horticultural-enthusiast Australian friend, Noel, to a park just a short drive south in Chiang Mai. The enormous Royal Park Rajapruek was dedicated in 2006 to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to celebrate his 60th year on the throne and 80th birthday.
It’s a botanical garden with thousands of varieties of plants, trees, and flowers meticulously arranged in such a way I sometimes felt like I was Alice in Wonderland.
The magnificent Royal Pavilion sits against the back of the gardens reflecting in a huge pond. Walking up to it, chimes danced merrily in the breeze. Inside are glass cases with historic pieces from the Royal history. Story-telling wall paintings decorated with gold appliqué commemorate the King’s projects, such as his efforts to help bring sustainable agriculture to Thailand.
The “Royal Virtue Tree” (Boromaphothisomphan Tree) inside the pavilion is a wonder. It has nine crafted clusters of lotus blossoms. Each layer represents a different period of time during the King’s reign from initiating projects, to the Thai people’s growing happiness with the results, to all of Thailand flourishing as a result. There are 21,915 leaves on the tree each representing the King’s days of accession and a teaching from the King to the people.
The meticulous maintenance and astounding beauty of this park confirmed one thing for me about Thailand: Thai people love their King.
I ended up getting to do and see so much in Chiang Mai. I felt like I had spent the right amount of time to get to know both the city and the surrounding area. But now my visa in Thailand was nearing its end. I had 3 days left to get back to Bangkok to catch my next flight. And 3 days was enough for one last adventure!